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The Position of Women in Ancient Mesopotamia

Patriarchy was a double-edged sword for the women of ancient Mesopotamia.

Patriarchy was a double-edged sword for the women of ancient Mesopotamia. On one side, Patriarchy is illustrated with the many laws that grant protection to women from patriarchal abuse. Laws placing restrictions on the use of women’s dowries, or bride prices paid for women, and the manner in which divorce preceded all point to the state’s recognition that women needed some legal protections from male authority. On the other side, all of these protections discuss women in terms of moveable property. For example, the 117th law of Hammurabi’s Code states: “If any one fails to meet a claim for debt, and sell himself, his wife, his son, and daughter for money or gives them away to forced labor: they shall work for three years in the house of the man who bought them, or the proprietor, and in the fourth year they shall be set free.” In this respect women are treated similarly to slaves. In light of this type of treatment, woman still constitute a small amount of power over her obligations to her husband. If her husband treats her unfairly and neglects his duties to the family, the woman retains the right to divorce and withdraw her dowry if the husband is proven guilty by trial (Hammurabi’s Code 142). Other than the obvious powers granted to women through the Code, women were still capable of exhibiting a large amount of influence over their husbands and the men around them. Even with the patriarchal culture of these times present in the Epic of Gilgamesh, women were portrayed as great consultants and manipulators to the men around them. As backed by Hammurabi’s code the women in the Epic of Gilgamesh took on roles that turned them into mothers, guides, and manipulators.

According to Hammurabi’s Code, when a wife bore no children the husband had the option of taking another wife as his own (Hammurabi’s Code 145). This law indicates that there was great importance put on maintaining a family lineage. The position women were expected to take on was that of a mother. The mother was in charge on holding the house together, responsible for tasks such as caring for the children, chores, and managing the slaves. The mother was in a sense the leader of the domesticated lifestyle. Ninsun, the mother of Gilgamesh, plays the role of the loving mother and also that of the wise counselor. From the start, Gilgamesh seeks guidance from his mother. When he has two dreams about an axe and a meteor she plays the role of the guiding, comforting mother by analyzing his dreams: “The axe is a man…This means a strong friend standing by his friend…” (Temple, I, 32-36). The word ‘Domestication’ also strongly reflects the duties of a woman and how she needs to know everything about maintaining a family life and close relations. Similarly, Gilgamesh was also compelled at the end to learn about these relationships. This is why he was able to communicate with his people better, and as a result they began to have feelings for him and mourned his death in the end.

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